Panasonic GH4 Field Test Part I

High Performance, High Resolution, High Functionality

By William Brawley | Posted: 05/30/2014

Images from the GH4 showed great dynamic range and the EVF helped snap photos in bright sunlight.
GH4 + Panasonic 12-35mm F2.8: 35mm, f/5.6, 1/3200s, ISO 200

Despite 4K video recording as the hallmark feature of the new Panasonic GH4, Panasonic's new flagship mirrorless camera is still a top-notch camera for still photography. I had a couple of weeks to spend some quality time shooting with the GH4 -- out on the streets of New Orleans and along South Carolina's coast -- and right off the bat, I was very impressed with both the image quality and performance of this new mirrorless camera.

GH4 + Panasonic 12-35mm F2.8: 35mm, f/3.5, 1/400s, ISO 100

In the hand. On the physical side of things, if you're familiar with the GH3, then the GH4 has practically no learning curve in terms of handling and ergonomics. Despite the drastic weight- and space-saving benefits that come with the average mirrorless camera compared to the typical DSLR, the GH4 is certainly on the larger end of the spectrum with a more traditional DSLR design.

Compared to smaller to mid-sized DSLRs, such as the Pentax K-5 or Nikon D7100, the Panasonic GH4 looks practically the same size, with a nice solid heft -- although with a much more comfortable, contoured handgrip in my opinion. If you want a small and lightweight interchangeable lens camera to slip into your bag, the GH4 is not for you.

However, even with the slightly larger body, you still reap the benefits of the large selection of Micro Four Thirds lenses, which are inherently smaller than their DSLR counterparts. I was able to carry around a bright f/2.8 wide-angle zoom and a super-telephoto zoom lens with the 35mm-eq. FOV of 600mm with no sweat and hardly much space used up in my bag. Try that with a DSLR!

The 12-35mm and the GH4 make a great walkaround combo. Compared to the something like a full-frame 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, which weighs a ton, the 12-35mm "equivalent" for the Panasonic is a welcome change.

All in all, the Panasonic GH4 is a superbly comfortable and well-built camera, and the lightweight lenses make it all the more convenient.

One of my favorite things about the GH4 is that Panasonic is not shy about external buttons and dials. Similar to a DSLR, many of the camera's settings and modes can be adjusted by a simple button press or the turn of a dial without having to dive deep into the menus.

I especially love the rotating focus mode switch to the right of the EVF. Not only is the AF/AE Lock button right there too, but I could quickly change from AFS to AFC (and MF, too) all with the flick of my thumb and without taking the camera down from my face, even though I'm left-eye dominant. When I was shooting wildlife, I could quickly change to burst shooting with the dial on the top left, and then easily toggle between AFS for more stationary subjects at the full 12fps speed, or use AFC for moving subjects at a slower (but still speedy) 7fps.

I also love that dedicated drive mode dial. It makes it very easy to switch from single-shot to burst shooting or even self-timer or time-lapse shooting. Compared to the way Canon implements these settings, for example, making you press a "Drive" button and then scroll though the modes with a dial, the GH4 is certainly simpler.

Performance. The GH4 feels built around speed, with lightning-quick autofocus, great shot-to-shot performance and a massive 12fps burst rate (without continuous AF, though). In shooting both quick street shots and urban scenes to various animals, including small birds, the GH4 rarely had issues autofocusing.

Using the Panasonic 12-35mm F2.8 OIS lens, I was able to utilize the new DFD focusing technology in the GH4, which made AF performance super-fast. Even in low-light situations, I found the GH4's AF works very well with this lens.

GH4 + Panasonic 12-35mm F2.8: 12mm, f/4, 1/3200s, ISO 200
Although the GH4 is not terribly compact, it's fairly lightweight and its quick AF performance makes it easy to grab quick snaps on the street.
GH4 + Panasonic 12-35mm F2.8: 35mm, f/2.8, 1/2500s, ISO 200

The only time I had issues with focusing was while photographing small birds using the Olympus 75-300mm F4.8-6.7 II lens. Not being a Panasonic lens, the GH4 wasn't able to utilize the cool DFD contrast-detect focusing algorithm with it. Still, for the most part, this lens performed admirably with nearly instantaneous focusing. However, there were times while photographing some small birds that the camera would simply refuse to focus on them. Despite adjusting the focusing target area to a smaller, more precise size to better ensure that I was focusing directly on my subject, the camera sometimes still didn't focus properly -- rather it would tend to focus on the background behind these small subjects.

I typically resorted to quickly re-focusing on a larger nearby object, like the bird feeder itself, at which point the camera could more easily rack the focus up to the proper distance. Luckily, the birds I was shooting generally "behaved" themselves and stayed roughly in the same place long enough to capture some frames, but for faster-moving objects, I can definitely see quite a few missed opportunities.

Sometimes the GH4 struggled to focus on smaller objects in the frame, such as this bird. A quick re-focus on a larger object, like the feeder, helped bring the lens back to the proper focusing distance.
GH4 + Olympus 75-300mm II: 300mm, f/6.7, 1/640s, ISO 640

The shot-to-shot and continuous burst performance of the GH4 is also fantastic. Taking quick single-shot snaps was a breeze, and I never felt like I was waiting for the camera at all to let me take another shot, even while shooting RAW+JPEG (granted, I was using fast Class 10 SD cards, though).

GH4 + Panasonic 12-35mm F2.8: 31mm, f/2.8, 1/400s, ISO 200

Continuous burst shooting with the GH4 does differ in speed depending on your focus mode. With single-shot AF, the GH4 gives you a blazingly fast 12fps. In day-to-day shooting I never needed the full buffer, which I found to be around 19-20 frames in RAW+JPEG mode, and the burst speed was impressive. It came in very useful when shooting birds that were perched at a set distance away from the camera, as I could fire off a quick rapid burst of five or so frames practically instantly to ensure I got a good pose or expression.

With continuous AF, the burst speed drops noticeably to a still-respectable 7fps, which was certainly fast enough for most subjects. The continuous AF performance, itself, was also excellent, even when using an Olympus lens, and displayed barely any lag or strong "wobbly" hunting that is typically seen with contrast-detect AF systems. 

With Auto White Balance and "Standard" Photo Style, the reds on this brightly-lit cardinal appeared a bit more orange-hued than I saw with the naked eye.
GH4 + Olympus 75-300mm II: 300mm, f/6.7, 1/640s, ISO 500

Image Quality. The GH3 and now the GH4 are renowned for their video image quality (more on GH4 video later), but the GH4 is a solid performer when it comes to still image quality as well. At low ISOs and mid-range ISOs around the ISO 1600 mark, I found the GH4 does a fantastic job with lots of detail and great color reproduction. However, in a few shots of a bright red cardinal in full sunlight, I felt the reds had a bit more of an orange-ish cast than I saw in real life. Fine detail was also excellent in this ISO range, I found, and the camera's JPEG processing and default level of noise reduction does a good job at controlling noise.

GH4 + Panasonic 12-35mm F2.8: 12mm, f/2.8, 1/60s, ISO 2500

100% crop from the above ISO 2500 photo shows well-controlled luminance and chroma noise thanks to the default in-camera noise reduction, as well as a relatively high-level of fine detail.
Download the RAW file for a comparison without any noise reduction.

The smaller Four Thirds sensor has an obvious disadvantage compared to larger APS-C or full-frame cameras for very high-ISO shots, however the GH4 did a respectable job even around ISO 2500-3200. I shot a few low-light shots with the f/2.8 Panasonic lens, including a few long exposure star photos, and while high luminance and chroma noise is prominent, -- even without pixel-peeping -- the in-camera JPEG processing and noise reduction does a great job of reducing a lot of noise and keeping a relatively good amount of fine detail.

The GH4 does a decent job with high ISO long exposure shots, but this is an area where larger sensor cameras have an advantage, as the noise is pretty strong -- and any longer exposure time, in this case, would have started showing effects of the Earth's rotation more heavily (star trails).
GH4 + Panasonic 12-35mm F2.8: 12mm, f/2.8, 25s, ISO 3200
Download the RAW file for a comparison without any noise reduction.

4K Video. Remember when 720p HD and then Full HD hit, and we all stared in amazement wondering how in the world we watched standard definition video and TV all these years? Well, that's about to happen again with 4K video. And the 4K video quality from the Panasonic GH4 is stunning. Both Cinema 4K (4,096 x 2,160) and 4K Ultra HD (3,840 x 2,160) videos are super-sharp and highly-detail with great color and dynamic range. So detailed, in fact, that you can easily pull frame grabs from 4K videos to use as still photos!

A frame-grab from this Cinema 4K video. Compared to the resized still image below, which was shot around the same time, you can see that the 4K frame-grab still has an excellent amount of fine detail.

GH4 + Panasonic 12-35mm F2.8: 31mm, f/5.6, 1/1000s, ISO 200

However, compared to an actual still image file (click the above image to access), of course, the straight-up photos are higher resolution and more detailed. The 4K videos have undergone some compression as they are processed to .MOV files. If you're not printing large photos or pixel-peeping, a frame grab from a 4K video on the GH4 is absolutely usable as a photograph.

The Cinema 4K video, unlike the other Ultra-HD resolution, is only available in a true, film-centric 24p framerate, making it easy for professional filmmakers to use it in their cinema workflow. Interestingly, in order to access the Cinema 4K video resolution, you'll have to dive into the Setup menu and change the "System Frequency" to 24.00Hz, and then power the camera off and on again. This is also where non-US and other PAL-region videographers will need to go to get 25p and 50p video framerates -- just choose the PAL frequency option instead. No more region-specific models like there were with the GH3. I'm unsure of the technical reason behind the need to toggle the camera off and on, as other cameras like the Canon 7D for example, let you switch between NTSC and PAL framerates with just a menu option and you're on your way.

GH4 Cinema 4K Sample Video: Cinema 4K (4096 x 2160) / 24p / MOV
Download Original (492.5MB)

Autofocusing during video was very smooth with practically no wobbling or hunting normally seen in contrast-detect AF cameras. The tap-to-focus feature with the rear LCD was very convenient, and the smooth racking from near to far subjects gave it a very professional look; much like the Canon 70D, in fact.

GH4 Focusing Sample Video: Cinema 4K (4096 x 2160) / 24p / MOV
Download Original (195.3MB)

Overall, 4K video and video recording in general, was top-notch with the GH4, which I was expecting, given the performance of the GH3. We'll go in-depth with the video features in an upcoming installment, including our standard array of sample videos, as well as showing video quality of not only the 4K resolution, but also the high bitrate Full HD formats, so stay tuned! We also plan to shoot an ISO series at 4K resolution so you can see how video quality holds up at high ISOs.

GH4 + Panasonic 12-35mm F2.8: 12mm, f/2.8, 1/1000s, ISO 200

Wi-Fi. I must admit, when I first started seeing cameras with built-in Wi-Fi, I brushed it off as a gimmick. The setup process was clunky, and I thought that if you wanted to share photos quickly on sites like Instagram, then that's what your smartphone is for.

However, that's all changed for me. After first trying with the remote shooting features on the Canon 70D, and then playing extensively with mobile editing and social sharing with the Olympus TG-3, I've grown to love cameras with Wi-Fi. Needless to say, I had a blast with the GH4 and its built-in Wi-Fi features.

Like the latest Olympus cameras, the Panasonic GH4 makes use of a QR code that you scan with your smart device for quicker pairing, allowing you to bypass entering a Wi-Fi password for the camera's hotspot. There is a strange inconvenience, though -- at least on iOS -- that can add an extra step in the pairing process. If you're using your camera in range of your home or office Wi-Fi network, or any other network that you've previously connected to with your iOS device, the device will not auto-connect to the camera's Wi-Fi hotspot. You'll have to manually change networks. Not really a big deal, to be honest, but it's something to look out for if you're having trouble getting the devices to connect.

After the initial pairing, which was all rather painless, each subsequent time you want to go wireless, the Fn1 button on the top of the GH4 is set by default to enable and launch Wi-Fi control.  After a couple seconds as my iPhone connects to the GH4, I'm ready to go with both full-on remote control shooting for both stills and video.

With Panasonic's Image App, I'm able to adjust a wide range of settings such as aperture, shutter speed, white balance and ISO, as well as tap-to-focus. I'm also shown a real-time live view screen. Even at a distance of around 15 feet or so, remote shooting performance was excellent with barely any noticeable lag in firing the shutter.

The app also lets you geo-tag photos, which I experimented with only briefly, but like other features with the mobile app, it worked well. You'll first have to sync the time from your phone or device with that of the camera, and then you simply take some shots -- with or without the app (though the app needs to stay open), and then you transfer and write the GPS data from the app to the images.

Transferring photos to my iPhone was also a breeze with fast transfer rates, even with batch transfers of multiple photos. Browsing through the photos on my iPhone was simple and almost like swiping through photos locally on my device, though there is a short lag as higher-res images load.  The whole process took only a few minutes from connecting my camera and browsing photos, to then editing some on my phone and uploading to Instagram. Simple and fun.

Up next. Well, I wrote more than I had intended with this first Field Test installment, but I had a lot to report after shooting with the camera for the past couple of weeks. In the next installment, I'll dive more deeply into the video features of the Panasonic GH4 and also wrap up my review. Feel free to comment down below if you have any questions about the camera or would like me to test something for my next shooter's report.


Editor's Picks